For more on Kate Barr and why she wants to rip apart your job description, check out Pollen’s feature story.
A few days after the first major snowfall in Minnesota, young professionals from all over the Twin Cities trickled into the new Propel Nonprofits office for the monthly YNPN Twin Cities Leadership Breakfast.
As participants entered the office, they were greeted by the views of the Mississippi River and the downtown Minneapolis skyline, the smell of toasted bagels, and the warm and welcoming presence of Kate Barr. In a cluster of neutral colors, donned by the breakfast participants, Kate moved around the room in a bright, red blazer, introducing herself to each person and thanking them for coming out.
Kate Barr currently serves as the president and CEO of Propel Nonprofits, a position that came after an incredible career path filled with appreciation for every opportunity.
In the early morning conversation, Kate Barr detailed the steps to her current job while also giving great career advice for the young people in the room.
When lucky breaks happen, take them
To kick off the breakfast, Kate began by reflecting on her journey to Propel Nonprofits. Filled with unlikely careers and void of traditional timelines and pathways, Kate outlined her nonlinear and exciting journey, beginning with her start in administration.
“I went to college thinking I was going to major in history, then go to law school. But on the side, I was a dancer and I really, really, really, got into dancing. I went all over the country dancing, and because of this, I went to five different colleges and it took me eight years to get my bachelor’s degree. And every time I moved colleges, I changed cities and changed majors. I finally got my degree after I landed in Minnesota and got one of the first gratuitous, lucky breaks in my life.”
That lucky break was working for a dance company as a receptionist. Many of the breakfast participants raised their eyebrows and had shocked looks, skeptical to how a dancer and receptionist transitioned to the head of a nonprofit.
“When a lucky break happens, you don’t always see it, but take it anyway.”
“I was working for this dancing company, and they were facing financial issues because they didn’t pay their payroll taxes. So the treasurer of the board kept me and one other person on and said they would pay us later, which I think is against the law. But the board saw that I was pretty good at handling the checks and finances, so they made me the business manager.”
After working as the business manager, and getting paid sporadically or not at all, Kate decided to leave the dance company.
“The treasurer worked at a bank down the street and said if I ever needed a job, to come and see him. So one day, after I decided I had enough, I left the dance studio, walked down the street to the bank, and said, ‘I want a job.’”
The power of saying yes
As Kate continued her story, she detailed one of the most important lessons she learned in her career journey.
“The person I was working for [at the bank], Dave Cleveland, opened a second bank and asked me if I wanted to help him start a bank. I said, ‘sure,’” said Kate, as she shrugged while the participants laughed. “But that’s my other career advice: just say yes to stuff. ‘Of course we can open a bank, how hard can it be?’ I mean it’s complicated, but it’s just doing the stuff to figure it out. But it’s also about saying yes and working really hard.”
Over 22 years working for Dave, Kate worked at two community banks, had every job you can possibly have in a bank—opening new branches, buying the furniture, working with customers as a teller—and never had the same job for more than two years. She didn’t know how to do everything, but she was a constant student, always yearning to know more.
In her late 30s, she decided to act on that love of learning and apply to law school. After meeting with a friend who was an attorney, Kate decided she didn’t want to go to law school and that there were more ways to learn things. At the same time this was happening, the community banks she worked at were sold to larger banks, and Kate was unhappy at her job.
“So in this moment, I said yes, but I said yes to me.”
Kate paused and let that sit with the participants, who were all nodding their heads in agreement.
She quit working for the bank and, because she no longer wanted to be a banker, had a career crisis. During her time off in 2000, two friends sent her the same job.
“Both of them said, this is the job you need. And it was this job.”
To end the breakfast, Kate Barr took questions from the young leaders, many of which focused on managing up, change, and the generational divide in the nonprofit sector.
One participant raised her hand and spoke about the difficulty of being in an entry level position. “Many of us are starting out and we’re young, and I know many of us are not in the highest positions. Do you have any advice on managing up and encouraging us at our organizations?” Kate paused to reflect, then listed steps for the young professionals to take.
“There are three things you can do. 1, you can be endlessly curious and be ready to learn stuff. 2, be really good at your job, whatever it is. Then finally, foster the relationships internally, where you are the person people talk to because part of it is being in the right place, at the right time, and having the right question or the right answer.”
As the breakfast came to an end, another participant asked about advice working for a nonprofit as a millennial.
“There isn’t really anything that special about y’all [millennials].”
But, if you can’t handle change, don’t work for a nonprofit. I think that is one of the things to lead a nonprofit well. Of course, you also have to be deeply passionate about the work…You also have to be really curious about the business of it. You have to be bold and you have to be ready to bring people along with you. But you really have to be human—you have to be nice, you have to care.”